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Friday, October 26, 2012

“Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776”, by Walter A. McDougall

286 pages, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN-13: 978-0395830857
Since America won the Cold War, there has been great confusion over what principles should guide our Foreign Policy. The options range from the isolationism of Pat Buchanan to the interventionist nation-building of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Anyone wishing to understand the ongoing arguments should read this terrific book. McDougall's compelling thesis is that there is a fundamental dichotomy in US Foreign Policy, with two competing doctrines each influenced by four different themes. There is the Old Testament – or Promised Land – impulse, which is based on four key traditions: Exceptionalism (focus on liberty at home while avoiding entangling alliances); Unilateralism (as opposed to isolationism); The American System (The Monroe Doctrine); Expansionism (Manifest Destiny).
This was the prevailing approach to foreign policy – designed to protect America's liberty and independence from the outside world – until 1898 and the Spanish American War, at which point a New Testament – or Crusader State – gained ascendancy, likewise guided by four traditions: Progressive Imperialism (American Progressives abroad); Liberal Internationalism (Wilsonianism); Containment (war by other means); Global Meliorism (reforming other nations internal problems.
The adoption of the New Testament policy marked the triumph of the “do-gooder impulse” and represented America's desire to influence the rest of the world and try to make it a "better" place. Given this context, we can see that Buchanan and Bush are representatives of two great historic trends in American thought; what remains is for us to decide between the two.
After presenting the historic development of each of the eight traditions, McDougall concludes with a chapter on whether each would serve us well now. The only New Testament tradition that he sees any value in is Containment. In fact, he treats Containment well throughout the book. It seems as if he's a little overawed by George Kennan (the father of Containment). In particular, he gives the policy credit for defeating the Soviet Union. While he does criticize the price paid (huge debt, internal dissent, etc.), I believe that he overestimates the policy. First of all, if containment did work, it took 36 years to do so and that is simply too long. Second, it would seem that you have to consider the Reagan Era policy to be quite different than what had come before, especially the active support of counterrevolutionary movements in Soviet Bloc countries (Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola). Generally, the discussion of how US policy won the Cold War is somewhat weak.
But his final conclusions, that we should return to the Old Testament – taking care of our own internal problems; being prepared to act unilaterally, if at all; remaining strong enough to deter challenges; and thereby, continuing to fulfill our unique destiny – is cogent and extremely powerful. This is a pivotal text for understanding our role in the world, past, present and future.

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